Most of the air traffic controllers who monitor the 700 daily takeoffs and landings at Baltimore-Washington International Airport have moved to Virginia, where federal aviation officials say it will actually be easier for them to do their jobs.
Last month, the Federal Aviation Administration transferred 40 controllers from BWI to a new center in Warrenton, Va., in the midst of horse country, as part of a plan to consolidate the air traffic control functions from five airports into one place to help them work more efficiently.
During the past six months, controllers from Washington Dulles International, Reagan National, Richmond International, Andrews Air Force Base and, finally, BWI moved into the Warrenton center. The closer coordination should mean shorter and safer flights and significant cost savings for airlines, the FAA said.
Only a handful of controllers - perhaps five or six - remain on duty at BWI at any given time, and all of them work in the airport's tower. The controllers who had worked beneath the tower, using radar and slips of paper to guide planes that were five to 50 miles away, are gone.
They still monitor planes approaching and departing BWI. They just do it in Warrenton.
"We have all the newest, latest technology here," said Alan Hendry, director of the center, officially called Potomac TRACON (for Terminal Radar Approach Control Center). "We have more radar information available to us than any TRACON in the world, bar none."
The FAA allowed members of the media into the $110 million center for the first time yesterday to show it off. The center will play a key role in the agency's goal to expand the nation's airspace capacity by 30 percent in the next decade.
The controllers in Warrenton are responsible for aircraft that are within between five and 100 miles of their destination airport. Within five miles, the planes are handled by each airport's control tower. A national control center in Leesburg, Va., guides planes more than 100 miles out.
The opening of the Warrenton center will allow the FAA to eliminate three impediments to faster and safer air travel: "holes," "shout lines" and "chutes."
Holes are specific places in the air where planes can transfer from the airspace of one airport to another. Now, with the controllers from five airports in one place, holes aren't necessary. This means planes can reach their cruising altitudes sooner, saving time and fuel and reducing noise on the ground.
The shout line was a dedicated radio line that connected controllers in one airport with another. When, for instance, controllers at Reagan National wanted to send a plane into BWI airspace, they would push a button and then literally shout into the BWI control room.
Now, all the controllers work in one room and traffic managers walk among them to hasten communication.
The chutes were the long tubes that ran from the top of the control tower to the base. Controllers dropped strips of paper in them that represented planes in the air so controllers below could take over.
The strips are still produced in the towers, but they are scanned and then printed out at the desk of the controller in Warrenton who is responsible for the plane.
Controllers now have access to nine screens of radar - they used to have just one - so they can quickly switch to a backup if their primary radar goes down. Also, the displays are now in color and allow controllers to monitor severe weather and aircraft at the same time.
The FAA expects the center will help airlines save $25 million a year in fuel costs. And it's already paying off for passengers who are getting to their destinations sooner, said air traffic manager Barbara Cogliandro.
During last week's thunderstorms, controllers rapidly rerouted planes around the bad weather and, if needed, to other airports. "We feel we experienced less delays than we had in separate facilities," Cogliandro said.